Szklana gora/Glass Mountain
by LIDIA KOSK
reviewed by NITIN JAGDISH
Wydawnictwo Komograf, 2017
In 2009, Lidia Kosk published Slodka Woda, Slona Woda/Sweet Water, Salt Water, a bilingual selection of her verse that was translated from Polish into English by her daughter, Danuta Kosk-Kosicka. Among the poems in that collection was “Szklana gora,” which Kosk-Kosicka translated as “Glass Mountain.”
(Kosk’s poem can be heard here, and Kosk-Kosicka’s translation can be heard here.)
Communication means, but art suggests and “Szklana gora” brims with suggestive power. Reading it, I think of the boy’s determination in the Polish fairy tale of almost the same name (even though I’m not supposed to), I think of Jack and Jill, I think of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and I think of the quicksilver nature of time.
Last November, Kosk turned ninety. In honor of this milestone, Kosk-Kosicka has published a volume of translations of “Szklana gora,” which includes her English translation from 2009. There are twenty-one translations of the poem, each in a different language.
Even if I lived a dozen lifetimes, I’d never come up with a birthday gift as unique and thoughtful as Kosk-Kosicka’s.
Art happens when a person fashions concrete or quasi-concrete material into patterns that please aesthetically. In cinema, the material is celluloid. In music, it’s sound.
In literature, it’s words—not stories, not ideas, not images, not characters. A prose fictioneer or poet who is impervious to the charm of words should be ignored on capital letter issues like Love, Death, or Politics.
Since words—not stories, not ideas, not images, not characters—comprise literature’s basic material, a translation belongs to the translator, not the translated.
I shouldn’t say I’ve read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; instead, I should say I’ve read Lydia Davis, Mark Treharne, James Grieve, John Sturrock, Carol Clark, Peter Collier, and Ian Patterson’s In Search of Lost Time, which is based on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
I shouldn’t say Roberto Bolaño rendered American speech patterns so vividly in 2666; instead, I should say Natasha Wimmer used Bolaño’s original Spanish text to render American speech patterns so vividly in the English one.
I should say Danuta Kosk-Kosicka’s “Glass Mountain,” which is based on Lidia Kosk’s “Szklana gora,” brims with suggestive power. Reading it, I think of the boy’s determination in the Polish fairy tale of almost the same name (even though I’m not supposed to), I think of Jack and Jill, I think of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and I think of the quicksilver nature of time.
“Lidia Kosk’s own real-life glass mountain…has become [the translators’] as well.”
—Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, introduction to Szklana gora/Glass Mountain
Szklana gora/Glass Mountain includes translations in what could be considered minority languages. For example, one of the languages, Occitan, has at the most 800,000 native speakers.
Belonging to a group that speaks a minority language is like swallowing a Whitman’s Sampler of nuisances.
You endure compliments on your ability to speak the majority language. But it rarely occurs to a majority-language speaker to slum it and speak a minority language.
Speaking the majority language fluently and willingly, though, isn’t enough. When you speak your native tongue in public, you receive looks normally reserved for those who pick their noses at the buffet table. An aspiring community guardian or two will accuse you of drawing mustaches on everything the majority loves.
The majority considers you, at best, proof of its tolerance. At worst, it considers you a fifth-columnist.
Consider India. It has two official languages, English and Hindi.
Although India is linguistically diverse (to steal someone else’s insight, India is what would happen if Europe became a true single country), almost half of the population knows Hindi. If Wikipedia can be trusted, it’s the fourth most-spoken language in the world.
The largest film industry in the world, Bollywood, produces a Hindi-language cinema.
For the Hindi-über-alles shock troops, though, this isn’t enough. They never miss the opportunity to instruct non-Hindi speaking Indians (or people of Indian descent) on the dharmic necessity of speaking Hindi.
Remind them English is also the official language of India, and they’ll tar and feather you for collaborating with the imperialists. Tell them Hindi’s not your language because you’re from the South, and you’ll win your very own lecture on South India’s need to smarten up and embrace Hindi as a unifying common language.
After Mr. Jones left Manor Farm, the pigs walked upright.
At times, a minority language feels like the tongue that dare not speak.
By clearing a space for minority languages, Szklana gora/Glass Mountain reminds its readers that minority shouldn’t mean marginalized. It’s a reminder that couldn’t be timelier.
The volume also includes a translation of “Szklana gora” in Upper Sorbian. According to the introduction, there are roughly 40,000 native speakers; I’ve read elsewhere that the figure is closer to 20,000. Lower Sorbian has less than 7,000 native speakers.
UNESCO lumps the two languages into a single group, Sorbian, and classifies it as “definitely endangered.”
When a child speaks a self-invented language that only she understands, it’s charming to watch. We’re seeing an intelligence trying spread itself across a rapidly expanding world.
When a person speaks a once-vital language that only she understands, it’s rubbernecking on a grand scale to watch. We are witnessing the atrophying of a universe that will vanish with her last breath.
To be the last speaker of a language is to be counted among the loneliest and most heavily-burdened creatures in the history of the species.
A report published in 2004 estimated that 90 percent of the world’s spoken languages would be extinct by 2050. A more optimistic assessment from 2013 assured us that we’d have to wait until the end of the century to see even half of the world’s spoken languages die off.
Well, if English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for the rest of us, right? As UNESCO’s webpage on endangered languages explains, though:
The extinction of a language results in the irrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be essential for the survival of not only its speakers, but also countless others.
“While we are drowning in the noise of our own voices, uttered within dominant cultures and languages, we are surrounded by an ocean filled with the silence of others and barely hear an echo of the vanishing chorus.”
—Mission statement for the Last Whispers project
Since words—not stories, not ideas, not images, not characters—comprise literature’s basic material, a language’s death weakens the art. It becomes more monochrome.
By including an Upper Sorbian translation of “Szklana gora” and adding to the body of literature in that endangered language, this unique and thoughtful birthday gift performs an act of cultural preservation.
“I have decided to stop at 21—a lucky number.”
—Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, introduction to Szklana gora/Glass Mountain
NITIN JAGDISH is a junior curator of Lit & Art, Baltimore's longest-running reading series. His work has appeared in The Potomac, Retort, and Syndic.